If the world were logical, the product most useful would be the product most used—which from a retailer's perspective means the product most sold. But does everyone agree on what's most useful? In products like cameras, usefulness can come all sorts of ways. Was Madam thinking of taking pictures in the shower? A waterproof camera is useful in some settings, probably slow-on-the-draw elsewhere. What's useful? What does everyone agree is useful, but maybe it's not universally available? What would make your product most useful in ways nobody would dispute?
We weren't there, so we can't say, but it wouldn't surprise us if thoughts like these were considered at Konica Minolta, around the time they were dreaming up new cameras. "Say," we can imagine them saying, "how about image stabilization? Everybody loves image stabilization."
And no one could argue. Canon couldn't. Nikon couldn't. Panasonic couldn't. All three were offering image stabilization, in two broad forms: individual lenses with image-stabilization features built-in (Canon, Nikon), and compact cameras with permanently mounted image-stabilized lenses (all three companies). When Minolta introduced image stabilization in their cameras, they were noted for their novel technology, in a field already brimming in novel technology—technical distinctions aside, the Dimage models were competing in a class that was already well-populated. Minolta's solution was an imaging sensor that wiggles around behind the lens, in swift opposition to camera movement from an unsteady hand, keeping it immobile relative to the image trained on it.
Did it work? Yes, fine, thank you. It wasn't a cure-all, but it was a big help for handholding in low light, or wherever else slow shutters were required. The same could be said about Canon's and Nikon's and Panasonic's image stabilization, to about the same degree—that is, they all give about a two-stop advantage, at maximum, compared to the same camera or lens with the image stabilization turned off. That is, if you were handholding at a shutter speed of 1/60-sec., it was like handholding at a shutter speed of 1/250-sec. That's an appreciable maximum, especially when the discussion involves picture-taking sessions with a 1/60-sec. exposure. Its 1/250-sec. "equivalent" through image stabilization is just about enough for most hand-held photographs.
Sometimes, though, a fella's gotta take pictures with much, much slower shutters. And if you need a one-second exposure hand-held, does it do a lot of good that image stabilization means you need only a quarter-second hand-held? Sure, it's a great improvement, but a quarter-second's still too slow for most people to handhold without blurring the picture.
Image stabilization helps, but maybe not enough sometimes. And below a certain shutter speed, subject motion itself is a problem—the subject will blur, and there's no escaping it. What shutter speed is that? Depends on the subject—cheetahs move faster than snails. But that point exists somewhere, and no image stabilization system can overcome it.
Spreading It Around
So nobody's perfect. But that doesn't mean they're not perfectly good. Is there a disadvantage to having an image-stabilization system? Other than it must cost that much more than an identical camera or lens without it (it's pushing three grand for the Canon IS f/2.8 80-200mm lens). But assuming price were no object, would anyone want to be without such a resource in those times when it works?
When Konica Minolta announced the Maxxum 7D, their first DSLR of the 21st century, they answered all the foregoing questions affirmatively. By putting the same anti-shake technology into the interchangeable-lens product, they added the image-stabilization properties of image-stabilized lenses to regular lenses, without adding to their cost. That could help get a camera used in a lot of different places.
The majority of interchangeable lenses with their own image-stabilizing systems are, logically enough, telephotos, which magnify hand shake exactly as much as they magnify the size of the image. Sure it makes sense for image stabilization to concentrate in telephoto lenses.
Wide-angle lenses diminish the size of objects in their frame, and the effects of visible shake accordingly. But that doesn't mean they could never gain from image stabilization.
With a wide-angle lens, say 17mm or wider, most people could probably handhold steadily enough at 1/30-sec. But if image stabilization yields a full two-stop improvement, the wide-angle lens can work with an actual 1/8-sec. exposure.
That's a very long exposure, meaning a wide-angle/image-stabilized combo can be effective in unusually low levels of light. Talk about a product that can be used the most often.
We handled a prototype 7D more than a year ago (PTN Oct. 2004 issue) and declared it promising if its anti-shake system lived up to its promise, and if the camera took good pictures to boot. The 6MP image is snappy and well-detailed at ISO 400, and acceptable at 800 as far as noise control is concerned. The camera includes an on/off "noise reduction" setting on the main menu (page 3) that causes the camera to take a second "black picture" along with each real picture, the second without bothering to open the shutter. This creates a reference to pictorial noise generated internally, and provides a processing op to rewrite it.
As of our full review of the Maxxum 7D (PTN Sept. 2005 issue), we were dimly aware of the thoughtfulness with which the camera was designed. Whoever worked it out was thinking like a photographer, providing easy access to the most important features and setting their sizes/shapes for maximum effect. One is fat and convex, one is thin and concave, easy to distinguish by touch. You can roll the side of your thumb along the exposure-pattern selector, with its three solid clicks for spot, center-weighted, and matrix in a row, picking one or another as each picture warrants. Interactive metering—who'da thought of such a thing in the 20th century?